Gilles Duceppe and the coalition

How much influence did the Bloc Québécois leader really have?

by John Geddes

A new book-length interview with Gilles Duceppe, published in French, has sparked discussion about the Bloc Québécois leader’s influence in shaping the opposition coalition that tried to unseat Stephen Harper’s government in late 2008.

Chantal Hébert writes that Duceppe “casts himself as the driving force behind the Liberal-NDP coalition agreement.” I don’t doubt that’s an accurate characterization of his posture in the book (which I haven’t read), but it doesn’t reflect the way Duceppe described the coalition moment to me a few months back.

I interviewed him last spring for a story on the 20th anniversary of the Bloc. His account of his role in shaping the 2008 coalition did not, frankly, seem all that noteworthy to me at the time. As I heard him, he didn’t claim to have been in the driver’s seat.

We need to cast our minds back to Nov. 26, 2008. That evening, explosive details of the economic update statement Finance Minister Jim Flaherty would be tabling the next day were leaked. Among other things, the government was planning to eliminate the federal subsidy to political parties.

Duceppe told me that he was driving back to Ottawa that evening from Montréal, where he had attended a Parti Québécois campaign event in that fall’s provincial election. He remembered thinking through his options:

“What were the possibilities? Support Flaherty’s statement? That was a dead end for me, and the Bloc, and sovereigntists, and Quebec. Call an election, during a Quebec election? There was no future in that.  So, tragically, the best thing was certainly to support the coalition.”

That sounds to me as if he’s resigned to backing a likely coalition as the best among bad alternatives, rather than thinking about actively forging one.

Talks among the opposition parties toward creating the coalition began the next morning. Here’s how Duceppe recalled his part in the flurry of phone calls that set the coalition negotiations between the Liberals and NDP in motion:

“So I called Dion and said I’m ready to support a coalition if you’re ready. I said the same thing to Layton and to Elizabeth May. And Dion and Layton said we don’t want Elizabeth May to be there. So I called back Elizabeth May and said I was open [to your participation], but they were not; I’ll still support that coalition.”

Nothing here about, say, Duceppe coaxing Dion and Layton together. If Duceppe found that he had to play matchmaker, he didn’t mention it to me.

Then there’s the matter of coalition policy. What would it stand for? It couldn’t just be preserving their parties’ subsidies. They’d need an economic package. Hébert has Duceppe “placing the Bloc’s recession-fighting prescriptions on the agenda of the future coalition government.” Here’s how Duceppe described that influence to me:

“The problem is [the Liberals and NDP] had no proposals to face the [economic] crisis. So we said, ‘We made public our proposals three days ago, if you want to use them, use them.’ So they took 85 per cent of that. When they came back with my proposals, I said yes.”

That strikes me as something less than boasting about having driven the coalition policy agenda.

If Duceppe did not, at least in my interview with him, suggest he spearheaded the 2008 coalition, he was more assertive about his catalyst role back in 2004. That was when he, Layton, and Stephen Harper, then leading the Tories in opposition, discussed a forming a coalition if they defeated Paul Martin’s Liberal minority in the House:

I called Stephen Harper and Jack Layton to meet me then, and we signed a letter, the three of us. We sent that letter to Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, saying that if Paul Martin was to lose a confidence vote in September, don’t call an election, call us, okay?”




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Gilles Duceppe and the coalition

  1. “I called Stephen Harper and Jack Layton to meet me then, and we signed a letter, the three of us. We sent that letter to Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, saying that if Paul Martin was to lose a confidence vote in September, don't call an election, call us, okay?”

    Exactly.

    • Um, "exactly" what?

    • Excerpt from 2004 Letter:
      We
      believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the
      opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority.
      ********************************************************************************************************
      Where does it say not to call an election….call us. Harper isn't so stupid as to form a coalition with the separatists.

      • consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority

        Isn't that almost verbatim "don't just call an election, call us first"?

    • But it didn't happen then Emily…A real COALITION happened in 2008 between the Bloc, the NDP, and the LIBERALS!!!

      That are the facts, that is the reality, anything else is "fiction"…

      The LIBERALS showed clearly in 2008 that they were ready to do anything to get back in power and they did…

      They care more about there party then about CANADA!

      • More Conservative spin. When Stephen Harper is in opposition, he has no problem proposing a coalition with the speratists and the socialists. When he is the PM, it is evil and irresponsible. Does he think we forget everything he ever said or did before becoming PM?

  2. It's entirely possible that Duceppe is being almost as duplicitous as Harper on several matters, here….

    • Except we have the letter to the GG signed by Harper, Layton…and Duceppe.

      • Oh harper's proposed coalition is certainly a fact.

        • http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/bye-

          We learn, for example, that Stephen Harper had not discussed formation of a coalition government with the opposition parties in 2004, as many claim; their letter to the Governor-General was about “sending the minority Liberal government [of Paul Martin] a message that it was going to have to govern in consultation with the Opposition parties.”

          Borrowed from Wilson below.

      • And the letter says that "we will form a coalition". Right? BS

        • What, then, was Harper asking the GG when he said "consider your options.?" Her two options are: dissolve parliament, call an election, or don't dissolve parliament, and let the opposition have a shot at governing. No, coalition isn't mentioned… but it's certainly implied that the Conservatives were willing to cooperate with the other opposition parties. Otherwise, why did the opposition leaders write the letter? Remember, if any co-operation between opposition parties is to be demonized (according to Conservative rhetoric), they were playing the same devilish game.

        • There is no meaningful and functional difference.

          I will not be discussing this matter further.

  3. I had completely forgotten about the provincial election in Quebec occuring at the same time as the Economic FU and the coalition talk. Forcing a third election in a matter of weeks would certainly be something Duceppe would want to avoid.

    Duceppe's explanation here seems the most reasonable one….well either that or he really was planning to use his role as king maker to trick Stephane Dion into unilaterally granting Quebec independence…or something. Actually, I've never been clear – just what was the nefarious plan Duceppe hatched on that drive to Ottawa?

    • French on both sides of the cereal boxes!

  4. According to Chantal Hebert's article, what is most damning is that Duceppe and Layton had discussed a coalition arrangement prior to the economic update. This is confirmed by news stories shortly after when it was reported that Layton boasted to his caucus during a conference call about having the Bloc onside as a result of earlier discussions. The only reason the conference call came to public knowledge was that a conservative MP was mistakenly sent an invite to participate in the conference call. Naturally, Layton denied any such boasting.

    So, the chain of events between the various accounts seem fairly plausible and not mutually exclusive, the difference is merely the emphasis on who might have made the first phone call.

  5. Dion did not have permission to offer the NDP a seat at the table.
    Bob Rae was kept in the shadows.
    Gilles Duceppe thought the photo of himself included might not sell well out West.
    The letter sent to the GG in 2004 was not the same as the one in 2008.
    Jack Layton viewed the 2004 letter as a "pressure tactic".
    Harper and Duceppe did not complain after the NDP reneging on the letter labeling it a coalition government agreement in 2004. http://canadiansense.blogspot.com/2010/02/has-coa

  6. At the time, the Liberals and NDP were downplaying the per-vote subsidy issue, and were instead arguing that the primary rationale for the Coalition was the urgent need to respond to the economic crisis.

    That's pretty ironic, given what we know today. When the Liberals and the NDP were signing the coalition agreement, neither party had proposals to face the economic crisis.

    Like lazy schoolchildren who borrow the smart kid's homework so they can copy it five minutes before class, the Liberals and NDP were forced to borrow 85% of the Bloc's proposals and present them as their own.

    • Sort of like how the lazy schoolchildren working for Harper stole a speech from Australian PM John Howard?

      • Better that than from Chavez like Iggy is want to do.

  7. We liberals would rather have our ideological comrades in the Separatist Bloc running Canada, than the Cons any day. Duceppe as PM would be great. Quebec Separatism is a part of Canadian culture and we Liberals respect that. The Liberal/Separatist party is going to seize power one way or another, so you Cons better get used to it. Politics is about power at any cost and we Liberal/Separatists understand that.

    • Traitor! Get off the public tit and out of our tax dollars. People like you are disgusting, you principle-less twit.

    • I truly hope you are joking. When the Liberal/Separatists seize power Ontario and Alberta will have to separate.

  8. The 2004 coalition that wasn't,
    according to Brian Topp

    ” … Moreover, though a draft of the book was read by members of Mr. Topp's “tribe,” the final product is not completely scrubbed of material unhelpful to coalition proponents. ''
    "We learn, for example, that Stephen Harper had not discussed formation of a coalition government with the opposition parties in 2004, as many claim;
    their letter to the Governor-General was about “sending the minority Liberal government [of Paul Martin] a message that it was going to have to govern in consultation with the Opposition parties.”…
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/bye-

  9. The Libbies want back into power so bad they'll say anything to get it. Their followers are worse and fools. They gain nothing from the Libbies being back in power except higher taxes and looking pitiful on the world stage.

  10. One factor made such an unpopular coalition a possibility.

    Duceppe and Layton's participation in the coalition are unsurprising. Duceppe had every reason to join – the coalition was willing to implement 85% of his policies, and would give him a de facto veto. Moreover, his presence in the coalition debate had precisely the polarizing effect on Canadians that he wanted it to. For Layton, he would be getting the legitimacy that the NDP has long craved.

    However, the coalition was terrible from the standpoint of the Liberal party. The reason the Liberal brand is so strong is that it has traditionally been viewed as the party of national unity, and the party of good economic stewardship. A coalition with separatists and a party considered dangerous to the economy would hardly burnish Liberal credentials on those fronts.

    Dion was the key factor that made a coalition possible. As an utter failure on his way to political Siberia, Dion had nothing to lose personally by cutting a deal that was bad for the party in the long term. If he succeeded, he would be Prime Minister, if only for a brief period (or a long period – what if his government fell before the torch passed to Ignatieff). If he failed, it was not as if his star could fall much lower (plus, he would have left his despised successor with a mess).

  11. Interestingly reinterpreted by the G & M and the CBC. Why would Deception lie about this. The Libs and NDP are toast in the west.

  12. We are all Canadians no matter where we live. Gilles Duceppe's party received fewer votes than the Green Party and if we weren't still stuck in an obsolete electoral system he would not have the kind of influence that he has. The Green Party would have more seats.

  13. If you want to talk about dangerous coalitions, nothing would be more scary that Harper's current coalition of the Refom and Uninformed getting a majority government.

  14. The 2004 coalition that wasn't,
    according to Brian Topp

    ” … Moreover, though a draft of the book was read by members of Mr. Topp's “tribe,” the final product is not completely scrubbed of material unhelpful to coalition proponents. ''
    "We learn, for example, that Stephen Harper had not discussed formation of a coalition government with the opposition parties in 2004, as many claim;
    their letter to the Governor-General was about “sending the minority Liberal government [of Paul Martin] a message that it was going to have to govern in consultation with the Opposition parties.”…
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/bye-

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